Interim Core Faculty, MA Urban Sustainability
Last year I read The City and the City a sci-fi detective story by China Mieville, which takes place in two cities that are in some places adjacent to each other, and in others, actually occupy the same physical space. To manage and maintain the distinct existence of the two cities, their inhabitants have adopted a deep cultural practice of “unseeing” — the ability and requirement to recognize, but not-see, things in the other city. Things that are actually there, but cannot be. The inevitable infractions of this law are called a “breach,” which is the highest crime imaginable by either city. These crimes against the unseeable are managed by their own transborder police force, called the Breach.
It’s a great read, which I highly recommend for lovers of great fiction. But I bring it up here because of how well this idea parallels one of the most poorly understood resistance movements of recent U.S. history — the resistance by unions, employers, and elected officials to the actual enforcement of affirmative action, specifically and particularly in the building trades which, when accessible, provide some of the best-paying jobs to working class Americans. Forty years later, organized labor and employers still “unsee” the value of black workers in a manner that might even challenge the imagination of Mr. Mieville.
This history is reframed and ably presented in a recently published anthology edited by academics David Goldberg and Trevor Griffey called Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry. Each chapter offers detailed descriptions of events between 1963 and 1973 when redevelopment projects and affirmative action programs collided with complicated movements by black communities to control the development of their neighborhoods and gain the right to work. The leaders and citizens of these cities-in-the-cities were all African American.
The stories in Black Power at Work include inspiring accounts of the bold innovations that these movements produced to transform the distribution of opportunity between the races in the United States in a meaningful way. Those elevated moments are, however, tempered by the despair of possibilities that are to this day unfulfilled. It is this history, reframed and reproduced that explains the importance and common sense of the current initiative to create a Black Workers Center in Los Angeles. (an important a story, deserving its own piece, coming soon). [Click here to continue reading.]
Interview with China Miéville , Tor. com